Post-Trauma Stress Leads to Anxiety, Violence in Kuwait
It was just after 1 o’clock one quiet afternoon last week when a middle-aged engineer sauntered into the headquarters of Kuwait’s National Committee for Missing Persons and Prisoners of War. He asked for his former wife, a secretary in the office that has come to symbolize a war-scarred nation’s continuing battle from within.
He had 51 bullets in his pocket, a .357 magnum in his hand and, as his former wife’s colleagues later put it, “the madness” in his mind.
Before he left the building moments later to quietly surrender at a nearby police station, the engineer, a member of Kuwait’s upper middle class who had earned degrees at top American universities, had pumped nearly a dozen bullets into his ex-wife and her boss, adding two more names to the list of dead in postwar social carnage that is Kuwait’s enduring nightmare.
“It’s the mahjnoun , the madness--this tension that piles up and piles up and, finally, it breaks your mind,” explained Duaij Anzi, the committee’s chairman. “Two years ago, this kind of killing never could have happened in Kuwait. Now, we see it all the time.
“During the occupation of our country, we have seen so much. So much killing. So many guns. So many bullets. So much crisis. So much pain. . . . You cannot imagine what is still in the mind.”
Kuwait was liberated nearly 18 months ago, but its people remain prisoners of the pain and the violence that seven months of Iraqi occupation sowed deeply within them.
The double murder at Kuwait’s committee for missing persons was not an isolated incident. A week earlier, a teen-age boy shot and killed a classmate outside a high school to settle a fight they had had three years before. A Kuwaiti man tortured during the Iraqi occupation turned on his wife with a machine gun during a domestic dispute.
Such incidents have contributed to a murder rate that police officials say has more than doubled in this tiny nation, where most families are related and where killing was, until two years ago, the stuff largely of Western videotapes.
Behind the violence, say senior police officials and psychologists who are now working overtime to treat postwar Kuwait, is a nation in deep trauma--hundreds of thousands of men, women and children with nightmares, psychosomatic disorders, insomnia, frustration, guilt and, for many, unvented hate.
This trauma, experts say, is compounded by Kuwait’s cultural and social traditions--ancient Bedouin traits of shunning madness, revealing only strength and, as a result, institutionalizing what psychologists call denial.
“We are a scarred nation,” said Jasem M. Hajia, one of Kuwait’s handful of professional psychologists, who reckons that as many as 80% of all 700,000 Kuwaitis suffer forms of what experts call post-trauma stress syndrome. “Everywhere, I see the displaced anger. I see the frustration. I see the guilt. I see the denial. I see the sadness, the grief and the pain. So much pain.
“On the outside, we cover it all up. But inside, no, we are traumatized. We are sad.”
It’s not that the tiny Persian Gulf emirate is awash in crime. The murder rate doubled in a year--but from fewer than 40 killings in 1991 to more than 80 homicides so far this year. Kuwait city remains among the safest metropolitan areas in the world, where foreigners walk unmolested at night and beach cafes are filled nightly. (Each, though, has a large-screen television where Kuwaitis constantly monitor news stations.)
But in a society where murder, armed robbery and crimes of passion were virtually unknown before Iraq’s invasion, senior police officials have concluded that the mounting incidence of violent crimes is proof of a fundamental change in Kuwaiti society.
“Not many societies have experienced a total occupation, as happened here in Kuwait,” declared Brig. Gen. Abdul Wajeed Khuraibet, chief of the police department’s statistics, planning and criminology division. “We are witnessing a new phenomenon of human society, and of our society’s behavior.”
Khuraibet said police were forced to crack down on traffic violations, which had long been all but ignored in the emirate, when mad speeders were “killing almost as many people as we lost in the war.”
Compounding the problem of violent crime are “hundreds of thousands of guns, ammunition and explosives left behind after the war,” he said. And so severe has the crime problem become that his division launched a massive behavioral study, distributing 20,000 68-item questionnaires to a random sample of Kuwaitis about such matters as their attitudes toward violence and whether they still say “please” and “thank you.”
“The Iraqi occupation was a time of complete lawlessness,” he said. “During that time, people witnessed so much killing, so much looting--even the traffic lights were stolen. And the people lived in that environment for so long. We are just now beginning to see its full effects.”
This reality of life in Kuwait was largely missing from the blizzard of images that flowed in recent days from this oil-rich nation, two years after Iraq’s Aug. 2, 1990, invasion.
Instead, the U.N.-sponsored alliance--which spent billions of dollars and hundreds of lives wresting Kuwait from its Iraqi captors--was treated to a dizzying display of this country’s reconstruction.
Kuwait and its international contractors have extinguished the fires set by Iraqi invaders in hundreds of oil wells, repaired dozens of refineries and managed a near-prewar production level of a million barrels of oil daily. Palaces have been rebuilt, as have Kuwait’s internal defense systems and much of its 18,000-man army.
These images were reinforced throughout the week by the sight of U.S. forces hitting Kuwait city’s beaches for joint military exercises.
Even the Kuwait zoo--which became a symbol of the nation’s suffering when liberation forces discovered that the Iraqis had killed or stolen most of the animals--is to reopen its gates in October after a sweeping reconstruction program. That symbolic event “will make people here feel something, that this country really is free,” said the zoo director, Molosa Khashti.
But in speaking with pride about his replenished zoo, Khashti made it clear that the handful of animals that survived Iraq’s depredations in Kuwait seem to be faring better than Kuwait’s humans.
“The animals, their behavior is not much changed,” he said. But when asked whether he felt differently now, he said: “What we saw here--things, well, nobody can imagine what they did here. I saw a lot of things--very bad things. . . . And that really affects me.”
His self-censoring manner of discussing the occupation was, in the words of Western-trained psychologists, “classic trauma denial.” To outside analysts, it is a denial that goes beyond what has been seen in torture victims from other cultures, a denial that psychologists said is a factor in the increasing violence in Kuwaiti society. The violence has been “like a volcano,” one said, “that explodes when you make one small hole.”
“In general, not only (among) Kuwaitis, but (for) everyone who has been tortured, the first instinct is to forget and get away from what happened,” said Allan Staehr, a Danish psychologist hired by the Kuwaiti government a year ago.
Noting that only 250 torture victims have come to his clinic in the last year, he said that the “aspect of getting away from it is much larger here than we have seen in any other people. The problem is, to treat these post-trauma stress disorders, we must get the victims to face what they have been through. And this is something we cannot do easily here. . . .
“So it comes out in other ways. A lot of normal, average Kuwaitis have had experiences with guns now. A lot of Kuwaitis have killed someone now. They have passed through their basic set of human limits,” said Staehr, who with his wife, Mia, has established a clinic for torture victims in Kuwait city, modeled after their Denmark-based International Council for Torture Victims.
For Kuwaiti psychologist Jasem Hajia, the brutality of Iraq’s prolonged occupation has combined with the cultural denial of the average Kuwaiti to weaken “the basic human impulse control” in his society.
Hajia, 35, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, survived the occupation and plans to attend an international seminar in October on post-trauma stress at UCLA. As a Kuwaiti, he is an expert in his own culture of denial.
“We are a culture that deals with denial very well,” he said. “We deny everything--our political system, our social system, everything. When a Kuwaiti hostage is released after seven months in an Iraqi prison, he says he is fine. He knows he’s not fine. His family knows he’s not fine. His friends know he’s not fine. But no one speaks about it. . . . Outside, we tend to show everything is normal. But inside, we have so much pain.”
The case of a client (Hajia said that the practice of psychiatry and psychology bears a stigma in Kuwait so great that he refuses to use the word patient ) illustrates another trauma that has damaged Kuwait’s national psyche: an estimated 850 Kuwaitis who the government says are still held in Iraq.
Hajia tells of a 9-year-old girl who was held hostage with her family until Iraq released women and children after the invasion. Her brother is still a hostage. “I don’t want to talk about this because it makes me cry,” the child told Hajia. When he asks her to draw a picture of anything, “she draws her brother with a big cloud over his head, rain pouring down on him and the words, ‘Oh, my God, what a disaster!’ ”
At the headquarters of the National Committee for Missing Persons and Prisoners of War, Chairman Anzi said the recent double murder at the agency’s offices was just a symptom of “a collective punishment of an entire society.”
Saying that he joined the committee to help Kuwait launch an international publicity crusade to make missing Kuwaitis a part of a U.N. campaign to force Iraq to comply with cease-fire resolutions, Anzi said the POW issue provides a constant fuel for Kuwaitis’ postwar madness.
“These are typical Arab families, integrated families, and if the father disappears, the entire family collapses,” he said.
“It’s also an issue of percentages. . . . Eight hundred and fifty people may not sound like such a high number,” he said. “But there are only 120,000 families in all of Kuwait, and everybody here is everybody’s cousin.”
Anzi, a 25-year veteran executive of the Kuwait Oil Co., said the missing Kuwaitis are a constant reinforcement not only of the trauma of the Iraqi occupation but also of the hatred the Iraqis left behind.
“Look,” he said, “Saddam Hussein might go. The regime might go. But for us Kuwaitis to forget, it will take generations. And whoever is being born here in the next five years in Kuwait, he, too, will remember the Iraqis. You’re talking about hundreds of years to forget.”
Psychologist Hajia spoke with far less anger and far more conviction when he estimated the time it will take for Kuwaitis to recover from their ordeal.
“I’m afraid it will take a long time--years to come--to get over this pain. . . . We will see many problems for a long time: violence, child abuse, drug problems, depression, work alienation. This, I am afraid, is the future of a nation like ours with so much pain in its past.”